January 31, 2014

County Poor Farms: A Different Sort of Social Security in North Carolina

Durham County Poor House
Illness, injury, a downturn in economic conditions – we’ve all found ourselves feeling a financial pinch from time to time in our lives.  

Local and municipal government programs have long worked to provide assistance and relief to the sick and poor.  In the 18th and 19th centuries in the US, tax payer supported county poor farms, also known as poor houses or almshouses, existed to provide assistance to the unfortunate.  These “farms” provided housing and support for those in need and pre-dated the current Social Security system developed in the 1930s.

Poor farms are not an invention of US ingenuity. Poor houses date back to Victorian times as a government answer to poverty, often even used as a punishment for the downtrodden. Charles Dickens described poor houses as reformatories where inmates were subjected to hard labor.

Wake County’s first poorhouse was established by William Boylan.  (Patterson)  Boylan was a staunch Federalist who initially came to Raleigh to take over his uncle’s newspaper, the Raleigh Minerva.  An extremely civic minded public servant, Boylan worked tirelessly in service to Raleigh and to North Carolina. He was known to deliver firewood to the poor in the winters and to assist a former slave in his efforts to flee north.

Admission was both voluntary and involuntary, as was release. Entire families were often admitted together. Sometimes, children would reside at the farm but other times they would be given to local families for care, thereby separating families in this time of crisis.  Birth certificates of babies born at the farm often listed their birthplace as “poor farm”.

Able residents were required to work on the farm. Many poor farms had their own cemetery.

Poor farms were often located adjacent or within local prison farms. Families with children lived with and worked next to hardened criminals. Poor houses were also at times a convenient place to send those who were mentally ill or had an “unsound mind”.  You didn’t have to be “poor” to be involuntarily admitted to a poor house.

According to a 1904 government report summarizing North Carolina poor house laws, the board of commissioners for each county was authorized to “ Provide for the maintenance and well-ordering of the poor and to employ biennially sane competent  person as overseer of the poor”.  These persons must live at the “county home” or other place as designated by the board of commissioners.  The residents had to be cared for at the expense of the county, but were to be released as soon as practical.  


What can I find in a county poor farm record?

Most poor farms maintained a register of admissions and residents listing basic information such as name, age, and date of admission.  Some went a step further, much to the delight of family historians, and maintained information about the individual’s personal habits, visitors, and extended family, as well as information on who may have had them admitted.

Finding Poor House Records


Most poor house records were maintained by the county, as in North Carolina.  These records can be found at the North Carolina State Archives at the county level.
In some cases, there may be other records stemming from a stay at the poor house, such as guardianship, adoption records, or orphans court records.

Things to keep in mind when searching poor house records:

  1. These institutions were called by different names; poor house, poor farm, almshouse, county farm.
  2. Poorhouses were not located in each North Carolina county.
  3. Poorhouses opened in the various North Carolina locations at different times between 1811 and 1854.
  4. Many poor houses or farms had their own cemeteries.  These cemeteries are sometimes known as “pauper’s field” and contain no headstones or outward identification other than a rock. Other poor houses used nearby church cemeteries to bury the deceased.

Paupers tend to leave scarce documentation for genealogists to follow; they may not have owned land, accumulated large estates, or participated in other life transactions that would leave a paper trail. Poor house records can provide a true treasure of information on elusive family members who might not otherwise appear in the standard records family historians tend to turn to first. They also paint a realistic picture of life as a pauper adding another dimension to the stories of our ancestor’s life.  Remember that it’s not just the poor house record that can illuminate the story, but the corresponding records that are natural occurrences of a pauper’s difficult life.


(This is a draft of an article I wrote for the Wake County Genealogical Society journal several years ago.)

3 comments:

  1. Hi, you might want to take a look at my documentary short on North Carolina poorhouses (Gone to the Poorhouse)

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  2. I have a relatively who was supposed to be born in 1809 in East Tennessee. His mother was from NC, according to census records. How would I find poor house records to see if that's the stone to break through my brick wall?

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  3. My office in Orange County is responsible for keeping up the old Orange County Home ( as it was called) Cemetary. It has one large headstone. by the way, my Stancil ancestor came to Mecklenburg (now Union) County from Wake or Johnston Counties.

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